Hooked up with B last weekend to make another visit to Mt. Shasta. The goal was two-fold. End the season on a high note, and get some more feedback on the Telemark Tech System binding.
In our dreams we wanted to check out a route neither of us had done before, the Bolam Glacier from the Coquette Falls trail head, but practicality led us inevitably to the Brewer Creek trail head. It had been several years since skiing that line so I was surprised to see how well the road to the TH was marked. No doubt locals are disappointed at this, but from a visitor’s perspective it was stellar; there were signs at every turn.
Despite it being a not so stellar year for snow, the late season storms that have peppered the slopes of Mt. Shasta in April and May forced us to park one full switchback before the end of the road, or about a mile before the official trail head. It only added about 15 minutes of uphill hiking to the climb and we were skinning within an hour of heading up.
When we got our first glimpse of the route driving in the Hotune route looked like it had some nasty wind sculpted snow in the middle – between 10,000 and 13,000 feet elevation. The latest weather info we had suggested that the winds of the previous days would subside and, since it was an east facing route, it would get enough sun on it to reduce it to a creamy soft consistency for a ski descent.
The classic strategy is to rise early and start climbing by 3:30am. Truckee local, Robbie Huntoon was intent on following that plan but myself, B, and Emily rationalized that a later start wouldn’t hurt, and might even allow the snow to soften more, making for better skiing. Accordingly my alarm was set for quarter-to-four with the intent of moving by 4:30am.
It sure was nice to grab a few extra winks, and I enjoyed the ability to start the JetBoil and get water boiling for coffee while staying wrapped in the cocoon of warmth my Dreamwalker sleeping bag allowed. Both Em and B were envious of the Dreamwalker, but thankful for hot water immediately after waking. Alas, the luxuries of comfort conspired together to slow our departure and we didn’t really hit the trail until quarter-to-six, but that meant we could leave our headlamps behind.
In theory that was a reasonable expectation, but as we skinned up it was obvious the wind might have subsided, but it was still strong enough to keep anything from melting and it grew stronger the higher we climbed. As feared, the texture we had seen from afar was sastrugi bonded to refrozen mush, a combination of horrific ski conditions that required crampons for ascent and descent.
Since the wind was out of the north we figured the Wintun side of the ascent ridge would be protected and soft. Unfortunately the wind kept temps low enough that the snow on the Wintun wasn’t softening from heat, but thankfully, was smooth enough to be skiable. Not exactly delightful, but possible.
The highlight of the trip though was Emily. Not because she’s young, vivacious, and full of energy, which she is, but because she had consciously chosen to embrace ski mountaineering with a free heel. As she said in her classic Ernie voice, “it just made more sense, it looked more like what I wanted to do, what I was coming from with snowboarding.”
Welcome to the club, Em.
That in and of itself isn’t reason enough to merit even being memorable. Although the ranks of snowboard transplants to tele isn’t unheard of, it isn’t exactly a top ten trend either. No, what made it memorable was the dogged determination she showed when Shasta served up a platter of spanky snow. It’s like mank only harder, and if you didn’t bare your edges with finesse it spanked you – either by demanding alpine style power and precision, or surgical precision with a tele-slice to the breakable crust covering the intermittent zones of textured junk. If you couldn’t deliver power and precision, it filleted your style and sent you headlong into a tail spin or a cartwheel turn.
I suppose I was dumb enough to suffer that sort of punishment once upon a time, otherwise I’d have given up long ago and locked my heel for good. So it was with a mixture of admiration and concern that B and I watched Emily brute force her way down that spanky snow on the lower half of the Wintun Glacier.
From the get go she didn’t try to gloss over her lack of experience telemarking. As a recent convert it sounded like she had logged at most 20 days as a free heeled skier. With the good snow we were anticipating it never even crossed my mind that she would have a difficult time skiing back down. Even though she was wearing a brace to protect a recently broken and still healing thumb she wouldn’t be joining us unless she could hang, would she?
However, the wind we had hoped to avoid persisted and the snow didn’t soften until we were below 10,000 feet. It was spank or be spanked and Em was admittedly nervous while latching in to her Hammerheads on a narrow ledge chopped into the firm, 40° windboard at the top of the run.
I skied below her to provide a psyche-belay and assured her I was only comfortable side slipping this section myself. “That makes me feel a bit better,” she shouted down the hill and in another minute she began a tenuous side slip to what we hoped would be softer snow hidden in the textured patches below.
Unfortunately the textured snow was really just breakable crust with a bumpy surface and a soft underbelly if you could smoothly break the crust. For a newbie telemarker, that’s a near impossible order, and Emily’s progress was difficult to watch since we feared for her physical safety. Not only was she relatively unskilled as a telemarker, but one of her poles had broken on the climb so it was missing a basket AND she was still wearing a brace on her left hand to protect her thumb that was swollen and healing from being broken about a month prior – the result of a crash while learning to tele.
Thankfully none of her auger turns elicited any shrieks of pain from jarring her already tender thumb, or fits of anger and disappointment at being continually spanked by the difficult snow. This was even more amazing when she reminded us, matter factly without any sense of remorse for not using it, that with a snowboard she would be slaying snow snakes instead of being tripped up by them.
That’s why she was the highlight of the trip. In spite of the horrendous snow she kept on smiling and kept on trying to tele. It didn’t take long before she figured out her good side and could reliably pull a tele to the left, and as the crust softened and turned to a thin film stretched over corn below the forced turns above gave way to a smooth rhythm down low.
All’s well that ends well, and Em didn’t complain a wit about the snow, she just reveled in being on the mountain — as did I, as did B.